Opinion: Senate infrastructure deal erases Georgia transportation earmarks

(File photo by Johnny Crawford,jcrawford@ajc.com.)

Credit: Jcrawford@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
(File photo by Johnny Crawford,jcrawford@ajc.com.)

Credit: Jcrawford@ajc.com

When the U.S. House approved a major infrastructure bill back on July 1, Georgia Democrats heralded the inclusion of over three dozen specific transportation projects for metro Atlanta and other areas of Georgia.

There was everything from $5 million authorized for the Atlanta Beltline to pedestrian improvements on Buford Highway, realignment work on Cobb Parkway, financial help for a new I-20 interchange at Chapel Hill Road, plus a series of projects across the state.

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, D-Suwanee, trumpeted ”nearly $20 million” in projects for Forsyth and Gwinnett counties. U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta, touted $19 million in projects. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, had $20 million in transportation plans in his district.

You get the picture.

But all that went ”poof” when the 2,701 pages of a bipartisan U.S. Senate infrastructure plan finally were made public this week, as none of the over 1,400 local projects included in the House bill were anywhere to be found.

It wasn’t just Georgia. It was every state. All the $5.6 billion in local transportation projects passed by the House — known affectionately as ”earmarks” — were not included in the Senate infrastructure bill.

And experts think that may well be the likely outcome on Capitol Hill.

“Obviously, if this ends with the House being forced to just eat the Senate bill entirely and send it to the president, there won’t be any earmarks,” said Jeff Davis of the Eno Center for Transportation.

Earmarks — a sweeter name for what some might call pork barrel projects — have long had their critics on Capitol Hill. But what’s interesting is when you do away with them, the Congress is actually ceding more power to the executive branch.

Instead of letting lawmakers direct money to individual road, bridge and transit projects back home, that power gets shifted to the executive branch, making Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg ultimately responsible for determining where billions in transportation grant dollars go.

Instead of asking your member of Congress to fund a local road project, now elected officials in Georgia will need to go straight to the feds.

Instead of legislative branch pork, you get executive branch pork.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock did add an amendment to the Senate infrastructure bill this week to possibly develop a new interstate corridor — to be known as I-14 — from Augusta through Macon to Columbus.

But that’s more of a highway plan for the future, much different from the immediate transportation projects that Georgia lawmakers had envisioned funding in an infrastructure package.

In other words, Congress may get a bipartisan infrastructure bill approved in the coming weeks. But state lawmakers may have to do some extra work to make sure they bring home the bacon.

Jamie Dupree has covered national politics and the Congress from Washington since the Reagan administration. His column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For more, check out his Capitol Hill newsletter at http://jamiedupree.substack.com.